American children’s show Weird But True, which began in creator Charlie Engleman’s basement studio, has grown with each season in terms of scale, production and reach. An engaging mix of art and craft, unbelievable facts, and real-life explorations, the series, in its third season, has migrated from the National Geographic channel to the streaming platform Disney+ Hotstar Premium. Entertainer-educators Engelman and Carly Ciarrocchi, hosts of the Emmy Award-winning show, bring a 13-episode series covering a wide range of topics ranging from dinosaur fossils, national parks, germs, solar system to farming, cooking, scuba diving, photography, and trains, among others.
While Brooklyn-based Ciarrocchi, who is the show’s producer and now also the host, is best known for her work as a host and writer for Sunny Side Up, a live morning show for preschoolers, Chicago-based Engelman returns to present the third season and wears many hats as a writer, co-executive producer and production designer. He won a Daytime Emmy Award for his writing on this show.
Excerpts from an interview with Ciarrocchi and Engelman:
How do you choose the various topics and decide what to cover in a season?
Engelman: It is very difficult because, theoretically, we could cover anything in the entire world. So what we decide to choose is very tricky. I think there are two big reasons why we might choose a topic. One is we love choosing those that are seemingly simple, something like cooking, and then try to make an episode to expose all of the weird and crazy things about it. The second one is choosing a topic like scuba diving that is going to be really flashy and exciting. But then we try to find a way to relate it to everybody’s life. So if you do scuba diving or not, you can still relate to it.
Has migrating to a streaming platform changed the way you approach the show?
Engelman: I think it’s the same, but now it’s just easily accessible to everybody. A lot more people are going to watch it, which we’re excited about.
Ciarrocchi: It’s going to be so accessible to so many kids, especially right now, as so many of them are at home. We didn’t see this (pandemic) coming when we were shooting, that it (the show) was going to be as important as I think it will be right now.
But it will also stream in many more countries now, did you have that in mind while designing the episodes?
Engelman: I think so. We always keep that in mind. For example, we can’t use any words on the art pieces or any of the physical props because someone might not speak English. We take care while identifying and labelling things as weird… because something that might be weird to us could be very normal for somebody else.
Do you also plan to break down the COVID-19 pandemic for children?
Ciarrocchi: It is funny though, that in season three, we kind of hit a bunch of themes in several different episodes that are totally relevant to the circumstances right now. We have an episode on germs that covers aspects like what it means to have a room purified and what it means to be sanitising your hands 100 times a day. We couldn’t have predicted this but we also have an episode where we explore the solar system, and what it would be like to leave planet Earth and experience isolation on a planet like Mars. We go to Hawaii, where they train astronauts for isolation. So we explore what it is to be disconnected from friends, which will be shockingly relatable for the audiences right now.
What goes behind a Weird But True episode — the behind the scenes?
Engelman: A lot of people think that Carly and I make the art. Both of us want to make it very clear that we do not. We have an enormous team of 30 to 40 artists. We have a camera crew of over 10 people and a team that does the research and writing.
Ciarrocchi: There’s so much support that goes into every single element of the show… It’s a highly collaborative atmosphere. We all work together to make sure everything feels authentic… Because I wasn’t in the first and second season and have been brought on for the third, we let the show follow the flow of the dynamic that was developing naturally between Charlie and I.
What was the idea behind the show when you first started?
Engelman: I wanted to make a show where you could show really interesting facts in a super informal way. A lot of educational shows for kids have someone who looks like a professor and is teaching a specific thing with some graphics or a puppet. It feels like two kids are creating a school project. So we thought of not presenting ourselves as experts, but more like learners. We use paper arts and crafts to make things look interesting, along with comedic skits and characters to make it fun. The experts who we invite on the show are not presented as mighty people who are untouchable. We had the famous astrophysicist Michio Kaku, and he was willing to play a fictional astronaut named Buster Infinity, wear a costume and be in a skit with us.
How has the response been from parents, children and educators?
Engelman: I get messages from parents who say their kids love the show, and I’ve also got messages from university professors who say they love watching the show too. If you’re really young, or you’re really old, you’ll enjoy watching the show.
What are your observations about the children of today?
Engelman: Children are incredibly critical of the media because they watch so much television and YouTube. They’re able to easily identify when someone’s telling the truth, when someone’s authentic, and when they’re not. They’re able to identify tropes really easily. So we have to work harder than ever to make something really fun.
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